Jury Duty

Artist's conceptionFlying out to the Palm Springs International Film Festival tomorrow, to join my FIPRESCI colleagues in a twelve-day parade of subtitles.

Seriously: Our jury is tasked with screening all the national submissions for the Best Foreign-Language Oscar. You can find a rough list here, though there have been some changes; only fifty-five of the titles on that page are still eligible for our award.

And yes, fifty-five films in twelve days might be a daunting task, but the festival thoughtfully sent us a package of screeners back in December, so I’m arriving prepared. If I’ve got the math right, I’ll have to see less than twenty films at the festival, which leaves me a little time to catch a few non-competing titles.

I’m particularly eager to see David Lynch’s “Inland Empire”, even if it does run three hours, and Michael Verhoeven — who guaranteed himself a place in cinema heaven with “The Nasty Girl” back in 1991, but hasn’t been seen much since — is coming with his new documentary, “Unknown Soldier”. Those are the top two on my personal wanna-see list, though of course I remain open to recommendations.

I’ll do my best to post frequent updates — with photos, even! — so check back whenever you can.

Oh, and Metro’s finally put all my holiday movie reviews on its main review page, here. So that’s nice.

You Can’t Burn a Bridge if They’ve Already Taken it Up

Rinse the blood off my aluminum… or, the year in DVDs.

Now, obviously this list is going to be somewhat incomplete, as I wasn’t on the hardcore DVD beat for the full calendar year. And come to think of it, I suppose I should address the whole Starweek thing — it’s certainly the biggest DVD story of the year, as far as I’m concerned.

First things first: I did not leave. I was dumped.

Second things second: I was dumped because some idiot at the Toronto Star believes the paper should do everything the Globe and Mail does, and when the Globe shrank its Broadcast Week magazine in the spring, reducing the page count — and cutting costs! — the Star quickly followed suit.

That meant cutting the book in half, though not reducing the size of the damnable thing, with which readers have been justly annoyed for five years now. Instead, the page count was reduced, just like Broadcast Week’s, and all the columns were being halved so that nothing substantial would change.

Since the column would now be so much shorter, it’d just make so much more financial sense to “bring it inside” — to let a staffer write it, instead of paying me as a freelancer — and that would be that. Thanks for your service, you’ve got two columns left, you’re done at the end of May.

I wanted to be pragmatic about it. The Star’s made stupid decisions before, and reversed them; after all, hadn’t Starweek dropped my column in 2001, when it jumped to the bigger format, only to resurrect it after five weeks? (Of course, things were different then; the paper was flooded with e-mails and faxes, and I had an editor who fought like the devil to keep me.)

And after the first few weeks of the “inside” column, I was sure they’d come back to me; it was just sad, it was. But, no. I forgot the most important thing about newspaper work: What’s on the page doesn’t matter, so long as the page is filled. And the back page of Starweek is indeed filled … though it seems inevitable that the paper will scrap the whole book, now that the Globe has folded the Broadcast Week listings into its Friday entertainment section.

Anyhow. Seven months after my unceremonious dismissal — which, if you’re looking for irony, was delivered by phone while I was bedridden with food poisoning, leading me to wonder whether I’d hallucinated the whole thing — I’m still without a reg’lar DVD gig. Which does pain me somewhat, because I do think I’m rather good at it.

I hope this doesn’t sound like whining. I still have my Metro gig, and I’m still writing reviews for UR and Canadian Smart Living, and it’s not like being dumped by the Star was the worst thing that happened this year. But I built a reputation and a readership over my fifteen years in those Starweek’s pages, and it does frustrate me to no longer have that outlet.

So. Anybody hiring?

Best DVDs of 2006, after the jump … because you deserve ’em.
Continue reading You Can’t Burn a Bridge if They’ve Already Taken it Up

Whoops

Dear, has that monkey followed you home?Two more movies opened yesterday, and I plumb forgot to mention them. This is probably because they are both eminently forgettable.

“Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus”: Imaginary is the key word here, as in: Steven Shainberg and Erin Cressida Wilson imagined that their silly little “Beauty and the Beast” riff would gain resonance and weight if they claimed it “happened” to an actual artist. Also, Nicole Kidman has got to stop giving that Very Intense Person performance. Sure, Robert Downey Jr. is appropriately seductive as the Chewbacca-looking circus freak who plays James Spader to her Maggie Gyllenhaal, but it’s a performance he could give in his sleep. Or perhaps I dreamed the whole thing.

“The Painted Veil”: Speaking of actors who have to stop being Very Intense, here is the curious case of Edward Norton, a brilliant, intuitive screen presence who has evidently decided to expend great energy getting dream projects made, and then to be the least interesting thing in them. Like “The Illusionist” and “Down in the Valley”, “The Painted Veil” is an excuse for Norton to wear nifty period outfits and be all intense, without actually doing anything interesting. Meanwhile, director John Curran demonstrates he’s studied the Merchant Ivory catalogue very carefully, and learned all the wrong lessons: Naomi Watts and Toby Jones do try to color outside the lines somewhat, but the movie has no real interest in their performances; all that subtlety gets in the way of the scenery, don’t you know.

Tomorrow, we talk about DVDs. Alert your Member of Parliament!

(Still having trouble with WordPress’ Java console. Anyone know what I’m doing wrong?)

Cool New Blog! Cool New Blog!

He's done my job for me

… well, not new, apparently, but certainly new to me. And certainly cool.

I stumbled upon Apropos of Something earlier this afternoon* while searching for a robot image to accompany my previous post; instead, I found this cornucopia of wonderfulness, which includes:

a series of hysterically recaptioned comic-book pages (check this one out; it’s absolutely marvelous in a child-of-the-seventies kind of way)

– a fun iPod music challenge (at which I did better than I expected)

a look at the Rocky movies that more or less functions as the evil twin of my own piece last week

… and plenty of other good stuff, including an essential Jones’ Holiday Soda taste test. Although I could have told him that Dinner Roll Soda was a guaranteed downward spiral, frankly.

This is the glory of the Google — you may not land precisely where you want to go, but you usually end up where you need to be.

(Yes, I know that’s a steal from Douglas Adams. Trust me, he’d be cool with it.)

* … yup, WordPress’ Java console is working properly again. For now.

Is Nothing Happening?

Seriously, I forget how dead the week between Christmas and New Year’s can be. I’m just sitting around thinking about my best DVDs of 2006 and lining up the next Palm Springs discs, and there is absolutely nothing going on in the world. Nada. Zilch. Zippo.

Thus, I offer for your consideration the worst television commercial in the world. WordPress’ Java console is being strangely cranky today — no images or hyperlinking available — so here’s the naked URL:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R3iiaGD0koU

Burping robots. Seriously, who the hell thought that was a good idea?

The Best of 2006: Theatrical

(As seen in yesterday’s Metro, for those of you in meatspace.)

A top ten list, by definition, excludes a whole bunch of other worthy contenders. So feel free to seek out “Brothers of the Head”, “Friends with Money”, “Old Joy”, “Superman Returns”, “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” and “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story”, all of which came awfully close to making the final cut.

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

Sacha Baron Cohen takes his merrily ignorant reporter – and his hidden cameras – across America for a convulsively funny, and disturbingly revealing look at that country’s insular culture. Friends are made, and lessons are sort of learned; it’s “E.T.” with naked wrestling and a bear.

Brick

Rian Johnson gives 1940s film noir a new context with his ingenious murder mystery, which takes place in a contemporary California high school. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a fine choice for the cranky shamus, and Nora Zehetner – recently seen as the manipulative Eden on “Heroes” – makes one hell of a femme fatale.

Caché

The Austrian director Michael Haneke delivers his doctoral thesis on guilt and paranoia with this harrowing study of a French TV personality (Daniel Auteuil) who starts receiving mysterious surveillance videotapes. For creepy, ambiguous intensity, there was nothing else like it … though that’s probably a good thing.

Children of Men

Alfonso Cuaron shakes off the shackles of the “Harry Potter” franchise with this astonishingly realized action-thriller set in a desolate, infertile future; not only is the movie’s fictional England utterly convincing, but Clive Owen’s subtle performance gives it a furious emotional kick.

The Departed

Martin Scorsese stops trying to win awards and gets back to making movies with a pulse. With top-flight performances and breakneck plotting, this is the best thing he’s done since ”
“GoodFellas” … and, ironically, might be the picture that gets him that Oscar after all. (Here’s hoping the Academy notices how good Martin Sheen is, too.)

Kings and Queen

Arnaud Desplechin’s astonishing film spends two and a half hours watching two Parisians struggle with their personal baggage. As gripping as any thriller, with incredible performances from Emmanuelle Devos and Mathieu Almaric. Naturally, it went unreleased in Canada for two years. Don’t wait that long to pick up the DVD.

Lady Vengeance

For the final installment of his vengeance trilogy – in which wronged characters exact horrible revenge upon the people they hold responsible for their suffering – Korean virtuoso Park Chan-wook delivers a study in icy justice that dares you to turn away from the screen, even as Lee Yeong-ae’s performance keeps you glued to it.

Pan’s Labyrinth

Guillermo del Toro’s magnificent fairy tale for grown-ups follows a young girl who flees from the Spanish Civil War into a supernatural underworld that may or may not be entirely in her head. Enchanting and disturbing in equal parts, this is the film del Toro has been working towards his entire career. See it on a big screen.

A Prairie Home Companion

The last film of the iconoclastic director Robert Altman is, somewhat fittingly, a quietly moving meditation on death – as experienced by the cast and crew of a live radio show on the night of their final broadcast. And the scene between Tommy Lee Jones and Virginia Madsen is a master class in acting.

Stranger Than Fiction

Will Ferrell makes his mark as a dramatic actor as an ordinary man who starts hearing the story of his own life, as written and read by Emma Thompson; even more impressive is Maggie Gyllenhaal, who couldn’t be ordinary if she tried, as the baker for whom Ferrell falls. Extra points for dragging Wreckless Eric out of the dustbin.

Returning to Normal

What? They want to make … well, sorta. In a normal world, Metro’s website wouldn’t still be hibernating, and I’d be able to link to all of last Friday’s reviews, and the three new ones I’ve got in today’s Boxing Day issue, and the 2006 Top Ten that’s in there too. Not even a PDF link available. Bugger.

However, because I am kind and generous, here’s the skinny:

“Children of Men”: Alfonso Cuaron’s brilliant, despairing drama — based on a novel by P.D. James that I am officially dying to read — folds an absolutely portrait of a dystopian near-future England and a stunning visual sensibility around a tremendous leading performance from Clive Owen. Plus, it’s surprisingly funny.

“Dreamgirls”: I feel the same way about this overwrought, overdirected, over-everything Broadway adaptation as I did about “Chicago” … yeah, there’s a lot of singing and dancing, but what’s the big deal? That said, Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson are tremendously watchable, even if the songs they’re singing ain’t got nothing on real Motown music.

“Pan’s Labyrinth”: Have I not yet convinced you to see Guillermo del Toro’s magnificent nightmare? Did this post, and this post, and this post fail to convince you it was worth twelve bucks and two hours of your life? Really, just see the damn thing already.

Top Ten tomorrow. And guess what? “Pan’s Labyrinth” is on it!

Happy Holidays

Merry Christmas! Blood Orgy!There won’t be too many opportunities for blogging over the next couple of days, so I’ll leave you with a couple of small but important pieces of advice:

– If you haven’t had the experience of “Woodland Critter Christmas”, you can find it here. Before you head off to bed tonight, take 22 minutes and experience the greatest and most demented of all the “South Park” Xmas specials.

– Ricky Gervais, Steven Merchant and Karl Pilkington have left a tiny little present on your lawn: A special Christmas podcast of “The Ricky Gervais Show”, available at the Guardian’s website here … along with the Halloween and Thanksgiving episodes recorded earlier this fall.

– And finally, if you feel like escaping the family and catching a movie tomorrow (and really, who won’t?), then you must see “Children of Men” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” on the biggest screens you can find. They’re two of the year’s best films, equally enthralling as emotional and cinematic experiences, and they continue to reward long after the end credits have rolled: I’m still grooving on “Pan’s Labyrinth”, and I saw it in August.

That’s it. The in-laws beckon. Enjoy the break.

It Begins

Let me see your war face!

Not sure what’s up with Metro’s website, but they still haven’t posted any of today’s reviews. (If you want to download the full PDF of the Toronto edition, click this … but be warned, it’s a big file.)

Anyway, if you’re wondering what to see this weekend …

“Curse of the Golden Flower”: After “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers”, Zhang Yimou delivers another wuxia-flavored costume picture, but the well’s getting dry; Chow Yun-Fat broods behind a ridiculous beard as a ruthless emperor, Gong Li falls over a lot as his poisoned wife, and their kids get all Shakespearean in the corners as a revolution simmers. But if you want to spend two hours watching exquisite fabric get bloody, this is wardrobe porn of the highest order.

“The Good Shepherd”: Matt Damon gives great hooded monotony; sadly, director and co-star Robert De Niro matches the tone of his three-hour movie to Damon’s performance, and the result is a very slow, very dull plod through three decades in the life of the CIA. Francis Ford Coppola is one of the executive producers, which may explain why the structural parallels to “The Godfather” are so blatant.

“Night at the Museum”: I’m as surprised as you are that a Shawn Levy comedy turns out the best thing going in a week of Oscar hopefuls, but that’s just how it shakes out. Sure, the script’s incoherent and Ben Stiller doesn’t do anything you haven’t seen him do a dozen times over, but the effects are pretty nifty, and it has Carla Gugino, Steve Coogan and Ricky Gervais in it.

“We Are Marshall”: Taking a turn into more serious matters, “Charlie’s Angels” popmeister McG tackles the true story of a West Virginia college town recovering from the loss of most of their football team in a plane crash … and delivers a two-hour study in high-contrast boosterism, with every moment staged for maximum weepery. But boy, does Matthew McConaughey rock some period sideburns.

The choices get better on Monday, I promise.

The Rocky Legacy

Older and wider“Rocky Six.” If you’ve been paying attention at all, the words should make you wince.

Like a dog returning to its own vomit, Sylvester Stallone has always crawled back to his most popular characters when his career hits a wall: The Edgar Allen Poe picture never got rolling, so he gives the boxing gloves another shot. And yes, I shit you not, “Rambo IV” is in production right now. (Surely the subtitle will be “Tired Blood”.)

But here’s the thing. “Rocky Balboa” isn’t bad. It isn’t great — Stallone the writer-director is still kind of a hack, really — but damn if this one isn’t the best “Rocky” movie since “Rocky II”. In a walk.

I know, I know. People love the third and fourth movies. But they love them ironically, the way they smile when someone serves a plate of Cheez Whiz and celery at a retro party. They’re crap, kids. I mean, there’s a robot in one of them.

“Rocky Balboa”, on the other hand, is a real movie. It’s about obsolescence, and finding your way in a world that’s moved beyond you. The stuff that Bryan Singer used as subtext in “Superman Returns” is right in our faces here: Sure, people still love Rocky as a neighborhood hero, but in that condescending, “hey champ” way; he can’t even have a serious conversation with his kid without someone interrupting to ask for an autograph. And he always obliges, which drives the kid crazy.

“Rocky Balboa” spends about an hour not trying to be a “Rocky” movie — or, rather, being the “Rocky” movie we always kind of wanted to see. Too old to fight, too tired to complain about it, and still reeling from the loss of his beloved Adrian three years earlier, Rocky spends his days puttering around Philly, quietly missing the old neighborhood, and his nights telling old fight stories at his restaurant. He’s Jake LaMotta at the end of “Raging Bull”, but you can relax around him.

In the second hour, when Rocky gets drawn into an exhibition match with the current champ after a TV computer simulation suggests that Rocky (in his prime, mind you) could win such a bout, Stallone starts piling on the stuff he thinks we want to see: Training montages, pre-fight chatter, lots of flashbulbs and speeches. That’s a distraction from the real hook, which is the suggestion that Rocky has picked up this impossible challenge because he wants to die in the ring, doing the thing he’s always loved.

Rocky with a death wish is something that Stallone the filmmaker can’t even consider — and if you asked him straight up, I think he’d honestly deny that such a theme was on his mind. But Stallone the actor clearly knows it’s in there; it runs like a river through his performance. And if I was to be honest, I’d have to say that Stallone’s performance in “Rocky Balboa” is the best of his career. He knows this guy inside and out — his shuffling walk, his reflexive humility, his huge heart.

Stallone the filmmaker keeps pushing it, with scenes like the one where Rocky adopts the ugliest dog in the world — the thing looks like a cross between a wolfhound and a sewer rat — but Stallone the actor pulls it off with naturalistic ease. You may snort, but this is one of the best performances of the year.

It’s still in a Stallone movie, though, which means the grace and charm of the actor is buried beneath a mixture of cliches and Freudian screenwriting. Just as “Rocky II” can be read as Stallone’s attempt to rewrite the end of “Rocky” so that he not only wins the fight, but gets the Oscars he believes he was denied the first time around, “Rocky Balboa” is an attempt to fix the problems of “Rocky V” — and they were legion — with a final chapter that hits all the emotional notes that movie missed … and maybe, you know, bring home a couple more golden guys.

That probably won’t happen. Instead, he’ll have to be content with having made a movie that turned out a lot better than it could have been, and might even make a little noise at the box office. This could be the word-of-mouth hit of the season.

Imagine that.

My other other gig.